As the opening credits roll, a couple hold onto each other Chagall-like as they hover above the ruins of Cologne. Cut to: a man and a woman on a bench filmed from behind. She says “It’s September already”. Cut to: a man greeting an old friend who blanks him and walks on by. We’ve only been running for a couple of minutes and there are a lot of cuts to come.
Über die Unendlichkeit is a series of small vignettes, each filmed in the same dull grey-green-brown, each accompanied by the voiceover of a female voice saying “there was a man who…”, or “there was a woman who…” followed by a brief description of the scene that we are seeing / about to see. If there is anything more that links them, apart from a basic sense of existential ennui, then it passed my little brain cells by.
Some of the scenes are banal – a man ties a girl’s shoelaces in the rain, another man enters a room, asks a woman if she’s a name I can’t remember, but that’s not really important. She isn’t. A young man tells his girlfriend that according to Newton’s laws of thermodynamics, they will retain their essence but maybe change form, into a potato, say, or a tomato. In which case, she says, I’d rather be a tomato.
Other scenes are more earnest – Hitler is in his bunker being Sieg Heiled by his generals with decreasing enthusiasm, defeated troops trudge through Siberia, a man holds a knife and the bloody body of his wife after killing her to save the honour of the family, something he now regrets. Each scene is accompanied by an equivalently dispassionate voiceover.
And so it goes on. A woman arrives at a train station. Other people are greeted by friends and family, she is not. Then, someone arrives to welcome her. A waiter gets distracted and misses his diner’s glass, pouring red wine onto the tablecloth. A modern day Jesus drags a cross through streets while a crowd shouts “crucify him” and a woman kicks him.
There is one recurring scene. A man explains to a psychiatrist that he’s losing in faith in God. This is a bit of a problem, as he’s a priest. Later we see him downing bottles of Communion wine to try and help him get through the service. Later still he returns to the psychiatrist and demands a talk. But it’s closing time, so the psychiatrist and his secretary bundle him out of the building, then hide behind the door till he’s gone.
I sense that this film will seriously divide audiences – there were a lot of walk outs at today’s showing, which is no mean feat, as it’s only about an hour and a quarter long. I wasn’t too sure myself, but as long as you don’t try to think about what it’s all supposed to mean, there is plenty to charm you. And while some scenes are just pointless, others are strangely humorous.
To show it’s not as easy as it seems, before the film was shown, we were treated to eight 90 second films which were in a competition to be judged by director Roy Andersson. Each tried to share Andersson’s mood of meaningless despair. They were universally terrible. Somehow Andersson managed to find a first, second and third best, but to me they were all just as dull as each other (inasmuch as it possible to be dull in such a short period of time).
Yet if you were to ask me why all the competition films were unfunny and boring, and most scenes in Über die Unendlichkeit are not, I’d struggle to find a coherent answer. There is just something about the film that somehow gets away with it. My best advice is to give it a go, you may be pleasantly surprized, Alternatively you may just hate it and be gone long before the end. That’s just the sort of film that it is.